Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Million Open Doors

One of the most exciting things about the digital publishing revolution is the sheer variety of publishing possibilities that are opening up for writers and readers alike. Science fiction has long imagined that the future would change the book, but it tended to be part of the "furniture" of the future world, background rather than the focus of the story. A character may read a "filmbook" or the like, but its mechanics are glossed over. It's just there to provide a sense that We're Not In Kansas Any More, rather than a serious extrapolation of the future of publishing.

When digital publishing first became a practical reality as a result of the growing popularity of the personal computer, the first forays were simultaneously excited and hesitant. Excited because it was seen as the realization of generations of science fiction readers' dreams. Hesitant because of the enormous uncertainty about how to translate the experience of the printed page into digital format.

Some of the problems were simply the immaturity of the technology. Physical media such as floppy disks and CD-ROM's required distribution networks, which imposed their own limitations, especially since there was no easy way to piggyback onto existing print book distribution. But even as more people gained access to the Internet and distribution of the intellectual good no longer required the movement of a physical object, problems remained. Concerns about digital piracy tended to be the most publicized, and led to a great number of counterproductive digital rights management schemes that effectively punished the legitimate user for the possible crimes that might be committed with the technology. But the real problem was that most people didn't want to read for pleasure on a computer screen. They wanted something they could carry with them and read during random bits of time here and there, something for which even the lightest laptop was too bulky and awkward.

Various companies produced dedicated e-book readers, but all of them were bulky and expensive, and their proprietary formats meant that you could only buy books from the company's bookstore, and if the company went out of business, you had an expensive, useless brick. Sure, you could keep reading and re-reading the books you had loaded on it until the device stopped working, but you couldn't get anything new for it. As a result, people were reluctant to buy these devices, ensuring they would fail in the market.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, several changes converged to finally realize the possibility of the e-book: Baen offering DRM-free e-books through their Webscriptions system, creating the Kindle e-book reader that wasn't entirely tied to their bookstore, Apple producing the iPad and iPhone (which opened the way for Google to offer the Android OS for other companies to produce tablet computers and smartphones). Suddenly readers had the possibility of an easily portable and relatively seamless reading experience, which made it easy to move from the familiar old paperback to digital format not just because of the cool factor, but because of utility considerations.

As a result, we have not only conventional e-books that are effectively digital versions of paper books, but also a wide variety of other formats. For short formats, publishers have been experimenting with e-zines ever since the Web really took off. Serialization is another distribution model that has come back into fashion through digital media.

Such a wide variety of possibilities can be overwhelming, but it can also be liberating. A writer who doesn't find success in one model of fiction distribution can try a different one. If serialization proves disheartening when readership dribbles off to nothing after the first several chapters, publishing whole novels via Kindle Direct or some other e-book publisher may reach a greater audience. Similarly, a reader who prefers bite-sized reading can find a wide variety of short-form and serialized novel formats, while a reader who wants the substance of a book can download full e-books onto a reader.

And it's quite probable that we're only seeing the beginning of the digital publishing revolution. The futures imagined by even the most innovative and imaginative writers may actually prove short of the mark, for the simple reason that they had to write a world comprehensible to their contemporary readers.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

On the Boundaries of Criticism

Recently there has been an enormous amount of discussion about an individual who blogged and wrote under a variety of names, the most well-known being Requires Only That You Hate (sometimes shortened to Requires Hate or ROTYH). This individual's characteristic book reviewing style was not only sharp and incisive in observation about observed flaws of the works in question, but harsh and even brutal in comments directed to the authors themselves. In some cases this individual make remarks to the effect that the author in question should experience various horrific forms of bodily harm, including acid attacks and being raped by dogs.

This individual typically focusing a particular wrath upon works that were perceived as racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise containing unacceptable bigotries. And these were not necessarily the obvious -- many of the criticisms were focused on offenses such as exoticization, in which the Other is portrayed as interesting and exciting simply for being other, or cultural appropriation, which was originally used to refer to people taking the traditional stories of impoverished communities and repackaging them for profit without any sort of consideration to the peoples from whom those intellectual properties originally came, but grew to become effectively a catch-all term for almost any writing of other cultures by white authors. But they all had the common trait of vicious language, often shocking in its level of cruelty and vulgarity.

One may ask why this individual's critical style should only have become an issue recently, when this individual has been writing for years, almost a decade. Part of it is a desire not to appear thin-skinned or unable to take criticism -- it is generally considered very bad form for an author to take exception to a review, except in matters of verifiable factual matters. But the biggest part of it, the part that kept even third parties from stepping up and saying that Requires Hate's most egregious personal language toward authors crossed the line to unacceptable, was the fear that one would look racist, or at least appear to be an apologist for bigotry, by attempting to speak against the excesses of RH's suggestions that horrible things ought to happen to authors whose works were to be condemned. Thus it was only when another author revealed that RH had also been targeting minority authors that it became acceptable to object to RH's conduct, and then only in very careful terms.

There are two big issues in this discussion that are in danger of becoming the Elephant in the Middle of the Living Room if political considerations are given primacy. First is the question of Acceptable Targets -- should some people be considered fair game simply by their membership in certain identity groups, in particular Straight White Male? Or should the discussion of a work be entirely on its merits, and the author entirely upon his or her actions?

And the second is how far is too far in writing a harsh critique. Are there limits on what is appropriate in a review, and is there a point at which one has Gone Too Far? Should the work be treated as something separate from the author, or does it necessarily reflect flaws in the moral character of its creator that may have been carefully kept from that individual's personal behavior?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Waiting for the Saucer to Come

Although online serialization has shown to be a very promising  way for aspiring and established authors to present a novel, it is not without its downsides. One is the possibility that a serial may stall or founder altogether. This problem can arise for a number of reasons.

Most obviously, the author may have a personal crisis or emergency that makes it impossible to write further chapters, or if they are written, to get them posted. Most writers are doing it in their spare time after job and family obligations, so it's completely possible that a sudden increase in the time demands of some other responsibility leaves nothing left for writing, and the serial is left hanging until things settle down.

Other authors may become discouraged when they do not see much interest in their serial and decide to pursue some other interest. Even when an author loves the fictional world and characters, it can be hard to keep going when nobody seems to be reading it. The doubts begin to assail the mind -- what if it really is crap? What if everybody thinks it stupid? What if the few readers who have been following it were just friends and family members reading to be polite? And thus the energy and enthusiasm drain away and it becomes harder and harder to tackle the next chapter.

It's also possible that the author may have encountered the dreaded writer's block and be unable to proceed with the serial. This can happen when the author has not planned the overall structure of the story in advance, and thus comes to the point of having no idea of what comes next. Alternatively, authors sometimes write themselves into a corner, cutting off options they'll later need to exercise and leaving their characters with nowhere to go.

Whatever the cause may be, as readers most of us know only that a long time has gone by since the last chapter went up. At first it doesn't seem to be that much of a problem, but after a while we look through our bookmark list and try to think just when the last chapter of that one went up, and wonder whether any  more will ever come out.

One serial that I'd been enjoying earlier this year but hasn't had any new chapters posted in several months is Frank Nemecek's Roswell Chronicles. It's the story of a family with a secret, and the people who want to steal that secret for nefarious purposes.

Most of us probably have some awareness of the role of Roswell, New Mexico in UFO lore, since the basic outlines of it have entered popular culture through movies and television. We know something crashed out there, and government agencies moved quickly to deal with it -- so the story goes that it was in fact a spacecraft from another world, crewed by intelligent beings like yet unlike Terrestrial humanity.

In Nemecek's take on the story, the protagonists are guarding a family secret -- a notebook by their ancestor, who was in fact one of the pilots of that crashed craft and who stayed behind to raise a family (presumably the aliens are in fact another branch of humanity who left Earth for some reason to settle among the stars ages ago, and now have returned), and who retained knowledge about materials the US government returned to the aliens as part of some kind of deal.

However, another group has found out about that hidden diary and is trying to steal it. So we have several ugly confrontations -- and then we come to Chapter 15, in which Carlos and Sean have decided to deal with some trouble when the next paycheck comes, and there the story stops. Now that JukePop Serials no longer makes public the date at which the author last updated a serial, it's hard to say exactly how long it's been, but I'm fairly sure it's been several months, and I'd really like to know what happens next.

Given that there are many possible reasons why a serial has stalled, and I haven't heard any public pronouncements from the author, I'd rather not speculate. It does have 75 +votes, which is an average of five +votes per chapter -- not bad, but not extraordinarily good either. So it's possible that the writer has become discouraged, especially if he's also been dealing with other obstacles that have made it difficult to get the next chapter written.

So please take a look at it, and if you read through to the end and want to see more, click that link on the final page that says to let the author know you'd like to see more. It's not a guarantee, but it's always possible that knowing people are eagerly awaiting the next installment will be just the encouragement the author needs to get the creative juices flowing again.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

When at First You Don't Succeed

One thing I really enjoy is watching writers grow. I am far quicker to forgive a failed first story or novel than a clunker by an established author, especially if the beginning writer then follows that problematic first work with pieces that show learning and development.

Recently, I blogged about my frustration with serious structural problems in Pierre Comtois's short story "Alan Shepard's Golf Ball." It had so much promise that I felt really frustrated to see it fall short of the mark.

Thus I was happy to discover that his latest science fiction story, The Future that Used to Be. It has much of the same flavor of nostalgia for the futures imagined by classic science fiction such as the early short stories of Robert A. Heinlein, but this time the setting is firmly here on Earth, in American suburbia.

Joey Ixbee is hanging out at a friend's place, watching classic science fiction movies, specifically an alien invasion story. They're watching it on an old-fashioned CRT TV, the kind that doesn't go dark instantly when you turn it off, but instead leaves a little glowing dot in the middle of the screen for a moment before the electron guns cool down entirely. The kind of TV I spent many hours watching when I was a child.

And the friend's mom shoos both of them outside, where they get to play unsupervised -- yet another suggestion that their TV isn't an older model they're still using because it still runs, but that the story is in fact set some decades in the past, when CRT's were still current technology, when most TV's still had vacuum tubes for all the electronics and transistors were still new and rare. No wonder the kids can play around the neighborhood until it's time to head home for supper, if it's set in a time before fear of kidnapping led to a severe restriction on children's freedom to roam and play outside adult-organized activities.

When Joey gets home, his parents have news -- they are expecting a visitor, and want the kids to be on their best behavior. And then we discover that Joey's family aren't ordinary suburban Americans -- they're in fact refugees from another world, one which is more advanced than our own, and which is troubled, such that his parents decided to come to Earth, to the US. They are literally aliens -- Joey was just old enough to remember a little of the technology they used, the flying cars, the crystal dome house, the total-immersion entertainment cap. But Earth has become home for him, so he's not exactly happy about having a family member from the old world, one who may not share their attitudes about coming to Earth and America.

The rest of the story is about how Joey deals with the  prospect of a visitor from a world he left behind, and how bringing back the old memories affects his relationship with his Earth-native friend, who has no idea he is anything but the all-American kid he appears to be. And the ending does suggest that there could be more to the story, although it works as an ending where it is.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

When Writers Don't Read the Foundational Works of Their Genre

I was going to write a review of a completed serial over at JukePop Serials, but Kate Paulk put up an article at Mad Genius Club on the peril of ignorance of the roots of the genre that is just too wonderful to resist reblogging and commenting upon.

Over at According To Hoyt today (linky), Sarah has quite a bit to say about the sterility of what the Social Justicy Glittery Hoo Haas call “proper” creative/artistic/literary pursuits. She’s right. More than that, she knows the emptiness of the kind of ideologies that have to lock people inside neatly labeled little boxes to “protect” them from the big bad world outside (hint: if merely being exposed to something else is enough to turn someone against your faith (or ideology or whatever the hell you want to call it), your thingummy belief whatsis sucks.

One of the side-effects of the sterility and mental walls is breathtaking ignorance from people who should – in theory at least (wonderful place, theory. Everything works the way it’s supposed to) – know what the freaking hell they’re talking about. And that in turn leads to the kind of nonsense that I, being a charter member of the Evil League of Evil (but not the Beautiful Evil Space Princess – that’s Sarah’s job) am obliged to poke fun at.

As a bookseller, I've really noticed over the past several years the complete loss of interest in the classic authors of science fiction. We used to take large numbers of books by classic sf authors such as Asimov, Clarke, and Pohl when we went to science fiction conventions. Now I've pretty well pulled all of those authors from the boxes of books we take to conventions, for the simple reason that they don't sell.

And if people don't read the works of earlier generations of writers, that means they don't know the history of their genre. And since science fiction is a genre of ideas, they don't know the history of the ideas being explored in current fiction -- which is particularly bad when an idea is being touted as new and fresh and challenging and breaking the boundaries (as if Harlan Ellison never published Dangerous Visions how many decades ago?)

The most obvious one is the current excitement about "non-binary gender," written with such breathless excitement that it's clear these people have never read The Left Hand of Darkness. And even before Ursula K. LeGuin came to prominence, other writers had been creating aliens with non-binary genders. However, most of them were not nearly so close to human as LeGuin's Gethens. The Ullerians of H. Beam Piper's Uller Uprising were reptilian, and the entities in James White's Sector General stories which had a dozen or more "sexes" (which seemed to function more like the reproductive classes found among fungi) were so alien as to approach Starfish Alien status, more like the Elder Things in H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.

But that's just one of the most prominent ones, touted by certain people for political reasons. There are also technological elements in recent novels which are being touted as new and innovative, but in fact have their roots in far earlier stories.  A lot of things being written about AI right now are really new takes on topics that were dealt with way back in the 1940's and 1950's. Computer technology has advanced to the point where there's a lot less handwavium (Asimov's positronic brains being a perfect example that have been replaced by references to quantum computing in more recent works), but a lot of the same assumptions are still there, and aren't really being examined, even as we live in a world where people carry around more computing power in their phones than existed in the whole world when Asimov started writing his Susan Calvin stories.

Yes, some of the old classics of science fiction can feel a little stodgy, for the simple reason that they were written for an earlier generation and have accumulated a lot of Zeerust in areas where technology either progressed far faster than imagined (computers, thanks to integrated circuits and photolithography) or far slower (space travel in particular, for various reasons). But it's important to at least know them well enough to not look stupid to someone who grew up on them.